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Sage Canaday was 40 miles into his first 100-miler, Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in August, when his left foot caught on a rock in the 2 a.m. darkness, sending him tumbling down a hill.
“On my way down my right knee slammed into another large rock with a sharp edge,” says Canaday, 29, of Boulder, Colorado. “When I looked down at my knee I instantly knew that the resulting cut would require stitches.”
Unable to walk without limping—the injury was stitched up at mile 50—Canaday found the pain unbearable by mile 55. He was evacuated from the Mont Blanc massif, which the UTMB course circumnavigates, via helicopter.
For Canaday, who runs (and wins) trail ultramarathons about as often as anyone, recovering from injury, and dealing with the accompanying setbacks to his training and racing, was a whole new kind of challenge. We caught up with him recently about his recovery, how he maintained his fitness and what his racing schedule looks like now that he’s finally back to running.
Right off the bat, how much time did you have to take off, and what was the rehab process like?
I wasn’t able to walk very well for three to four days after the incident. I ended up taking two weeks off from any running training, although after taking the stitches out myself I tested the knee out with a couple three-to-four mile jogs.
That week, I also splurged and got my very first entry-level road-bike setup, and started to ride a few of the short hill climbs around Boulder. I also saw my acupuncturist and massage therapist for some needling and breaking up of the scar tissue around the knee cut.
In total, it was about four weeks after the incident before I was able to really put some quality and quantity into my running training again.
Canaday showing off his recent “splurge.” Photo courtesy of Sage Canaday
Speaking of that road bike: Were you doing much cross-training to stay fit during that time?
It was basically me deciding to ride my bike on some days pretty hard uphill for 30 minutes or so. I also had a couple hour-long rides but nothing major or super long. Pure spur-of-the-moment and looking at Strava segments to get motivated. Getting the road bike helped me a lot mentally because I could focus on pushing my heart and lungs in another way and it ended up being more fun than I imagined. I still think about getting into cycling more and more.
Did you struggle mentally having to spend time away from training, or simply not being able to run?
I suffered more mentally because I didn’t get to finish my first 100-miler at UTMB. I put a lot into the race and I was executing my race plan very well, so it’s more frustrating to wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t fallen … but then I pinch myself and remember that it could’ve been a lot worse. I could’ve fallen off a cliff and died. I could’ve shattered the kneecap or totally broken my femur or something. It really puts this small injury into perspective.
I’m hoping there won’t be any complications in the future from my quick return to training—I never got the knee X-rayed and I still feel it a bit when I run—but for the most part I was out for a very minimal amount of time as far as injuries go.
You’re used to running pretty high mileage; was it a challenge to take things slow at first?
After another week of only stiffness and a little pain in my knee [following the massages and acupuncture sessions], I was able to ramp up my running mileage fairly quickly. When I started running I was careful to only go three to four miles for my first several runs, though. I wanted to make sure the knee joint would hold up to the pounding of running again.
From Strava and your social media, it looks like you’re already getting into workouts.
I’ve actually been running a lot more on the roads now, trying to get my speed and fitness back in a hurry. I’ll admit that it’s been a little rushed, but I still have big goals for this year.
That brings me to my next question. What are your racing goals, this year and beyond? Will you still chase the Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon? Will you return to UTMB (or any 100-miler)?
Right now, the number-one goal for me is to run a sub-2:18 marathon so I can qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. I figure that I need to keep my streak alive (since I qualified for the last two), and the marathon trials are very special to me because they only happen once every four years.
However, I also can’t wait to get back to the trails and mountains and prove that I can finish a competitive 100-miler! With qualification windows and the logistics of entering different events, it’s hard to say right now which 100-miler I will target. I love the UTMB course and the mountains in Europe, so I will return there eventually.
Where do you hope to qualify for the Olympic Trials?
My first shot back will be the Richmond Marathon on November 14. It’s a little rushed on eight weeks of training coming off the injury, but I’ve also signed up for [the California International Marathon] in December, three weeks later.
Cal International is the same weekend as The North Face 50-miler [TNF50] in California. For me it is an easy choice, though. The U.S. Olympic Trials only happen once every four years, and since I won TNF50 in San Fran last year it wouldn’t take priority over trying to get the Olympic Trials standard. Competing against the best ultra trail runners in the country to defend my title and earn $10,000 is really nice, but it’s not all about the money. I want to look back on my running career and say that I gave everything I had to be in every Olympic Trials marathon!